Egypt-Africa: Opting for pragmatism

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 22 Jul 2023

The conflict in Sudan is prompting Egypt to revise its diplomatic option vis-à-vis Africa.

photo: AFP
Following an air strike on a residential area killing 24 civilians this week in Sudan, the United Nations has warned of a full-scale civil war in the country.


On 13 July, as the leaders of seven African countries met in Cairo for the Sudan Neighbours Summit to discuss the conflict in Sudan, the UN announced the discovery of a mass grave in Darfur. According to the UN, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were responsible for the grave which contained 87 bodies. Many of the victims were from the non-Arab Masalit ethnic group.

The news brought back the ghosts of earlier rounds of atrocities in Darfur and signalled the widening scope of the conflict that started mid-May between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). It also confirmed Cairo’s worries over RSF activities in a region that borders Libya and Chad, including its use of the area to smuggle arms and militants from regional allies.

Attended by leaders of Libya, Chad, Central Africa, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and the secretary-generals of both the Arab League and the African Union, the Cairo meeting called for an end to all foreign intervention in the conflict and for a mechanism to be established capable of reaching a ceasefire and attending to the pressing humanitarian needs of Sudanese both at home and those who have fled to neighbouring countries.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), three million Sudanese, half of them children, have been displaced by a conflict that has been characterised by extreme violence, including rape and torture.

An Egyptian government source said that while a formula to end the conflict would at some point emerge, at the moment SAF leader Abdel-Fattah Al-Borhan and RSF head Mohamed Dagalo are determined to improve their positions on the ground in the hope of gaining the advantage in any future political-security deal.

The source said it would take months for a solid ceasefire to take shape, and the danger is that “Sudan falls into chaos before mediators get a working formula in place.”

The fear of total chaos taking hold in Sudan has been keeping Egypt’s foreign policy-makers awake at night. According to several government sources, Cairo is doing everything it can to avert this scenario. It has engaged in intense lobbying of the most influential players, both during the Sudan Neighbours Summit in Cairo and in the course of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s meetings during the African Union’s mid-year coordination summit in Nairobi.

While the Nairobi meeting was dominated by AU reforms and cooperation, Sudan was the focus of sideline talks. Kenyan President William Ruto is the chair of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Committee on Sudan.

Worried about the close and complex alliance of interests between Dagalo and both Ruto and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — Ethiopia is a dominant member of IGAD — Al-Borhan rejected IGAD plans for a subregional African peacekeeping force in Sudan.

Stability in Sudan is seen in Cairo as essential for security across the Nile Basin, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel and Sahara zones. A key Egyptian concern is that compromised security in any of these regions will facilitate the movement of militants and arms. Islamist groups such as Islamic State are already established in the Sahel and Sahara. Other militias, including the Russian operated Wagner, are also active, often serving as mercenaries in political and ethnic conflicts.

In addition to promoting a balanced approach towards an end to the conflict in Sudan, Egypt is promoting security cooperation with a number of African countries. According to government sources, while Egypt remains committed to inter-African economic and technical cooperation, it now has no choice but to prioritise security cooperation, even with countries with which it has political differences.

This pragmatic diplomacy extends to Ethiopia. After years of confrontation over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) Cairo has now opted for engagement in view of two essential facts: The dam is all but a fait accompli, and the international community has little incentive to invest in mediating a fair and legally binding deal between Ethiopia and the downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt.

This week President Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a plan to resume long-suspended GERD talks. The stated aim is to reach a deal within four months. The announcement was made after Ahmed took part in the Sudan Neighbours Summit in Cairo on Thursday and coincided with the planned start of the fourth filling of the GERD reservoir. During the last three rainy seasons, Egypt repeatedly complained about Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam and the absence of any coordination with downstream states.

Today, with Sudan immersed in conflict and with promises of Gulf financial support for a comprehensive development package that will serve the food security and investment interests of the financing states and of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, Cairo has opted to act pragmatically and pursue cooperation.

Government officials would not say whether the prospective deal is being viewed as a substitute for the legally binding arrangements that Cairo has long demanded, saying only that “something will be worked out before the end of the year.”

“We have pursued every negotiation path possible for a decade and have been open to all mediations, remaining committed to working out a consensual deal despite Ethiopian intransigence,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a senior security affairs expert. Today, he added, Ethiopia has committed itself to not causing significant harm to Egypt during the GERD filling for this year and the next.

Ethiopia, Ibrahim said, has also committed itself to the pursuit of cooperation and “now has a responsibility to live up to these commitments”.

Government sources say that Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese officials are currently examining possible modalities for negotiations and the issues they will need to address. Technical talks will begin in a matter of days, most probably modelled on the three-way technical consultations hosted last year by the United Arab Emirates.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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